Howard Dean, who just six weeks ago seemed to have the Democratic presidential nomination in his grasp, dropped out of the race Wednesday, declaring that he would convert his Internet-built campaign into a permanent movement to “take back our country for ordinary Americans.”
As a candidate, Dean lost 17 straight primaries and caucuses over the past four weeks after leading in the polls for much of last year and in early January. “I am no longer actively pursuing the presidency,” he told 250 hushed supporters in a hotel ballroom.
But Dean suggested he still would like to win votes and accumulate delegates in the coming primaries in order to have a voice in the party’s direction. Noting that his name will remain on primary ballots, he urged backers to “participate” in the rest of the nomination process. “Use your network to send progressive delegates to the convention in Boston,” he said. “We are not going away.”
On the other hand, Dean said he wouldn’t offer a third-party bid for the White House and urged his followers not to be “tempted” into supporting an independent candidate. “The bottom line is we must beat George Bush,” he said.
Dean has won 201 delegates so far. Those chosen in primaries or caucuses are pledged to vote for him on the first ballot in Boston, but those who are “superdelegates” – party leaders and elected officials – are free to change their allegiance at any time.
In bowing out, Dean sought to frame his campaign’s accomplishments for posterity. He said his message – confronting President Bush – had emboldened the other Democrats to assail the “special interests” in Washington.
“We have demonstrated to other Democrats that it is a far better thing to stand up to the right-wing agenda of George W. Bush than to cooperate with it,” Dean said. “We have led this party back to considering what its heart and soul is.”
Aides said Dean had no immediate plans to endorse another candidate, though he has had kind words recently for Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, and the two have talked since Sunday. Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a particular target of Dean’s barbs on the campaign trail, praised the former Vermont governor Wednesday for energizing the Democratic base.
“He has done an extraordinary job of invigorating a whole group of people who were divorced from the political process,” Kerry said in Dayton, Ohio, calling Dean’s campaign innovative. Kerry said he was unconcerned about his rival’s attacks, saying he often regretted things he said in the heat of the moment. “That’s the way life is,” Kerry said. “We’re going to be unified.”
Edwards, in a statement, said Dean “has energized and revolutionized this race, and excited a whole new generation of young Americans. He deserves our thanks.”
Dean had staked his diminishing hopes on Wisconsin’s fabled independent streak, thinking a miracle victory there would keep him alive. Instead, he finished a distant third Tuesday, behind the victorious Kerry and a surging Edwards.
It remains unclear what form Dean’s new organization would take, whether it would be a political action committee or a so-called “527” organization able to spend unlimited money independently on behalf of candidates. Campaign CEO Roy Neel said details would be drawn up over the next several weeks.
“There are a lot of ways to make change,” Dean said. “We are leaving one track but taking off on another.”
Dean’s campaign, linked in cyberspace and through informal “meet-ups,” has an e-mail bank of 640,000 professed supporters, and was able to raise a Democratic record of $50 million.
In the audience, staffers and supporters wept openly Wednesday and hugged one another, as a two-year enterprise that took off and rose to the top rapidly, then crashed to earth just as fast, came to an end.
“It will be good to have an outlet for the grassroots support we’ve built up,” said Marc Chadwick, a computer-systems technician for the Dean campaign who wants to stay and work for the new organization. “We’ve energized a lot of people.”
Near the middle of Dean’s speech, a woman shouted, “We believe in you, Howard!”
He paused, looked up from the podium and said, “Believe in yourself.”